The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to sustain the convictions of two former members of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s inner circle. Attorneys for the two claim they were engaged in routine “bare-knuckle” political behavior when they participated in the “Bridgegate” scandal.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the case, cited as Kelly v. U.S., are scheduled for Jan. 14, 2020. The court agreed on June 28 to hear the case on appeal from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.
The two former officials are Bridget Kelly, former deputy chief of staff to Christie, a Republican, and William Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Prosecutors say the plan was devised by David Wildstein, a Port Authority political appointee and Baroni’s de facto chief of staff. Wildstein became a witness for the prosecution.
Christie, a high-profile ally of candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 election, was never charged in connection with Bridgegate and denied knowing about the plan.
The government contends that Kelly and Baroni committed fraud as they conspired to close two of three local access lanes leading to the toll plaza of the frequently congested George Washington Bridge in a political payback scheme.
The George Washington Bridge is a double-decked suspension bridge spanning the Hudson River that connects Fort Lee, New Jersey, and New York City. Run by the Port Authority, it is reportedly the busiest motor vehicle bridge in the world.
Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall filed a 67-page brief on Nov. 22 stating the government’s position. Wall’s superior, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, is recused in the case.
The plan is said to have unfolded over four days in September 2013 and was designed to inundate Fort Lee with traffic after its Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, chose not to endorse Christie’s reelection effort.
“Kelly and Baroni lied about a traffic study in order to hijack Port Authority resources to gridlock a town, cause maximal harm to its residents, and endanger public safety,” according to the brief. “That was both outside their authority and repugnant to the goals of safe and efficient transportation.”
The two directed Port Authority employees to manufacture a bottleneck at the toll plaza of the bridge to send a message to the mayor, the brief stated.
“By telling those lies, and diverting the agency’s resources to serve their own personal ends of inflicting massive four-day gridlock on Fort Lee, Kelly and Baroni committed fraud.”
At the end of a federal jury trial in New Jersey in November 2016, Kelly and Baroni were each convicted of multiple counts of fraud-related offenses, as well as conspiracy to violate civil rights and deprivation of civil rights under color of law. The trial judge sentenced Kelly and Baroni to 18 months and 24 months imprisonment, respectively, each to be followed by one year of supervised release.
An appeals court vacated the civil rights convictions and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing, leading to Kelly receiving 13 months imprisonment and Baroni 18 months, both followed by one year of supervised release.
Lawyers for Kelly and Baroni argued in briefs filed with the Supreme Court that the prosecution unfairly made ordinary political maneuvering seem criminal and that the anti-theft and anti-bribery laws in the case had never been used in political corruption cases. Kelly claimed the lane closures were ordered as part of a routine traffic study.
“The alleged conduct here was petty, insensitive, and ill-advised. But in our system, political abuses of power are addressed politically,” they wrote.
Baroni’s attorneys referred to Bridgegate as “a case of bare-knuckle New Jersey politics, not graft.” If the government could have a public official found guilty of fraudulently depriving a public agency of resources merely for deploying his agency’s resources “with a concealed political motive,” then the federal government could charge officials for all sorts of ordinary political jockeying, they wrote.